Maturity in Christ

Maturity in Christ October 17, 2016

The brethren came to the Abba Anthony and said to him, “Speak a word; how are we to be saved?” The old man said to them, “You have heard the Scriptures. That should teach you how.” But they said, “We want to hear from you too, Father.” Then the old man said to them, “The Gospel says, ‘if anyone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also.'” (Matt. 5.39) They said, “We cannot do that.” The old man said, “If you cannot offer the other cheek, at least allow one cheek to be struck.” “We cannot do that either,” they said. So he said, “If you are not able to do that, do not return evil for evil,” and they said, “We cannot do that either.” Then the old man said to his disciples, “Prepare a little brew of corn for these invalids. If you cannot do this, or that, what can I do for you? What you need is prayers.”[1]

In his ministry Jesus was questioned by many who came to him about what they must do to be saved.  Often, they would start with some superfluous praise of Jesus which they did not really believe as a way to seek his approval of them. They would say with their lips what they did not accept in their hearts. His response was to ask why they said such things to him and then to tell them what they must do if they want to be saved.

Jesus’ encounter with a young man in the book of Matthew is rather typical. The man first praised Jesus hoping that through such rhetoric, he would receive some blessing in return.  Instead, Jesus asked why the man said such thing to him, and then offered what the man had asked, the way to salvation, which Jesus said was already established in Scripture. But this was not enough. The young man really wanted to be glorified, to be shown superior to others, and so asked for further clarification as to what he lacked  so as to be worthy of such praise. And so Jesus responded that if the young man wanted perfection, he should abandon all that he had so that he had nothing in his way from following Jesus:

And behold, one came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do, to have eternal life?”  And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? One there is who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” He said to him, “Which?” And Jesus said, “You shall not kill, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness,  Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to him, “All these I have observed; what do I still lack?”  Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions (Matt. 19:16-22 RSV).

Good Samaritan by Romary (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.0 fr (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/fr/deed.en)], via Wikimedia CommonsTo another, Jesus indicated that salvation is to be had by following the rule of love. That is, to be saved,we should love God with all our heart and to love our neighbor as if they were our very self. And to indicate what such love meant, Jesus gave the parable of the Good Samaritan:

But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”  Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead.  Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.  But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was; and when he saw him, he had compassion,  and went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; then he set him on his own beast and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, `Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’  Which of these three, do you think, proved neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed mercy on him.” And Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise” (Lk. 10:29 – 37 RSV).

Anthony, like Jesus, found people coming to him, asking him about the path of salvation. And, also like Jesus, Anthony first pointed to the Scriptures, to what had already been said, indicating that the answers were readily available in them. But people always want more, and so would be inquirers about salvation kept asking Anthony for more.

Anthony was recognized as a holy man. He was filled with wisdom because he had taken Scripture seriously. He had grown in spiritual maturity through his engagement with the Gospel. He lived his faith, showing not only that he believed in Jesus, because even the demons believed, but his belief led him to act with fidelity to what Jesus had said. Claims of faith are shown to be false if the person who claims to have it lives their lives unfaithful to what Jesus had said. What kind of belief is it to say Jesus is Lord and yet think what he said was of little to no consequence, turning his words into mere suggestions?  Jesus, when asked about salvation, did say it was in and through himself (cf. Jn. 3:17), but he did not stop there; he indicated the kinds of actions which were connected to belief in him. Salvation is in and through him, but we will find we are not with him if we do not do the things he tells us to do (cf. Matt. 7:23). This is why Anthony, when he was asked about salvation, he followed through with what Jesus said, telling his disciples the qualities associated with those living for Jesus. They are those who can and will turn away from evil; they will not return evil for evil, indeed, they will render love to their enemies. Whenever someone wrongs one of Jesus’ disciples, this does not excuse them to act contrary to the dictates of love and to follow through and act just like their abuser. If it is wrong, it is wrong, but to return evil for evil is to show one accepts such evil as being conditionally justified. And yet no one should feel free to call any evil, insofar as it is evil, as good.[2]

It is one thing to recognize we are weak, that we cannot act in perfection, because we are still growing in spiritual maturity. It is another to say it is impossible for us to ever do so, that we will need something easier as our goal. Anthony did not deny the human condition and the mistakes we will make along the way to perfection, but he rejected our attempts to excuse ourselves from the goal. This can be seen in the way in which Anthony began his response: he first gave an answer indicative of someone perfected by grace, of someone who has indeed found his or her way to salvation. Here, then, if someone strikes them, they turn around, showing them how strong they are by not broken by their abuse; they literally give the other cheek to indicate they are stronger and can take anything lashed out at them. This is not an indication that we should seek out and desire abuse, nor that if we are abused, we should stay near our abuser if we can move away. Rather, this is about dignity, with the realization that what someone else does to us does not destroy our honor and value; it is a position of strength. But when Anthony heard his disciples say they could not do this, he then went ahead and indicated actions which can be shown of those working on their salvation, trying to follow Christ. Just let the cheek be struck and be done: it is still a position of strength, to show the other that their actions do not move us to act like them. But again, this is something which is hard for most of us, and we might not get to this stage in our life; but we can at least follow the basic rule, “do not render evil for evil.” If we cannot do this, if we cannot see that this is the foundation of the spiritual life and the pursuit of the good, then we are like spiritual infants, incapable of controlling ourselves – and so, like infants, nothing more is to be expected of us than to be fed like children and to be prayed over by others.

Anthony knew that the good could be pursued and lived out; Christ would not tell us to do something which was impossible. Yes, without him, without grace, it might be, but having been incorporated into  Christ, having entered into his death and resurrection through baptism, it might be hard but it will be possible. It has to be possible, because nothing stained with sin will get into heaven; if it were not possible, then salvation itself is impossible. But as with all things which are possible, its possibility alone is not what is needed to achieve it: we have to work to achieve it, and again, Anthony shows us first the objective goal of that work, and then explored the path by which we get to that perfection. Once we find excuses to deny the words of Christ in our life, we have denied Christ – and it is no wonder that many in the world look to Christians and see them to be childish, speaking boldly of things they never do themselves.  Anthony’s words here, and at other places, might seem harsh, but they are not cruel; they are said out of love, hoping to get his audience to wake up and follow Christ in truth.

Salvian the Presbyter made a similar point when he had to express why faith without works is dead, because faith is demonstrated by works and without them, there is no real faith. We have to reject the idea we are saved just because we call ourselves Christian. We must actually follow Christ, and that is how salvation is achieved:

Since this is so, what reason is there for us being deluded by the false notion, thinking that, because we are called Christians, the good name can aid us in the midst of evils we commit, when the Holy Spirit says that not even faith without good works can profit Christians? It is of much more account to have the faith rather than the name because the name is a man-made word, whereas faith is the fruit of the soul. That this very fruit of faith is barren without good works is the testimony of the Apostle, who said: ‘Faith without good works is dead,’ and again, ‘even as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without good works is dead. He also added certain more harsh sayings for the confession of them who flatter themselves by their false claims to the Christian faith.[3]

Yes, these words are harsh, but they are also full of love. They seek remind us what it means to be a Christian. It is what Jesus told us to do. To love and render love to all so that we become reflections of his divine love on earth. This will turn us away from evil and keep us on the path towards God. Once we have been nourished by grace in the sacraments, we must arise, take up our cross, and follow Christ. Even though what that cross is for us will differ from what it is for others, one thing all who follow Christ should have in common: they should seek after the good making no excuse for evil in themselves. For if they are not willing to stand up and do what Christ told them to do, if they say they cannot do what Christ told them to do, if they say it is an impossible burden, what more can be said to them? They are not ready to follow Christ; give them some spiritual milk, hopefully it will nourish them and make them ready later.


 

[1] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers. trans. Benedicta Ward (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1984), 5.

[2] This should not be read as to suggest that we will immediately be perfect and so will be able to take whatever comes our way with ease. Nor that if some injustice is done, we should ignore it and not seek the restoration of justice. But we must act in such a way that our actions do not undermine our justice, so that we do not contradict ourselves by approving evil by doing evil ourselves.

[3] Salvian the Presbyter, “The Governance of God” in Salvian The Presbyter. trans. Jeremiah F. O’Sullivan PhD. (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1962), 92.

 

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